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Urgent action needed on mental health services in Northern Ireland

Pictured with the Mental Health Champion, Professor Siobhan O’Neill is Chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee, Daniel McCrossan MLA.

Pictured with the Mental Health Champion, Professor Siobhan O’Neill is Chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee, Daniel McCrossan MLA.

 

The Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has urged the Department of Health to give greater priority to mental health in Northern Ireland and increase the funding of key services. 


The Committee wants the Department to carry out a review into whether it is providing enough ‘early support’ to children who need it, including timely access to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). It has also asked for an action plan to address unacceptable mental health waiting lists here.



The call follows PAC’s inquiry into Mental Health Services in Northern Ireland, arising from a report published by the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) in 2023. It concluded that the successful implementation of Northern Ireland’s 10-year Mental Health Strategy was, ‘at risk without sustained, additional investment’.


PAC has now published its own report and made a series of recommendations to the Department of Health and the Executive as a whole.


Pictured left to right is: Cheryl Brownlee MLA (left), deputy Chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee; Daniel McCrossan MLA, Chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee and Mental Health Champion, Professor Siobhan O’Neill (right).

Pictured left to right is: Cheryl Brownlee MLA (left), deputy Chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee; Daniel McCrossan MLA, Chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee and Mental Health Champion, Professor Siobhan O’Neill (right).


The Chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee, Daniel McCrossan MLA said:


“Mental health is a key priority of our Committee’s work programme. It is one of the biggest issues affecting people in Northern Ireland, touching many of us during our lives and often impacting on the most vulnerable in society.


“Due to the history of trauma here, our mental health difficulties tend to be more severe and complex - resulting in cases which are more difficult to treat.



“We asked the Permanent Secretary and officials from the Department of Health to brief us on the delay and underfunding of the 10-year Mental Health Strategy which was launched in 2021.  We asked them to explain the impact on areas such as access to services, unacceptable waiting lists in mental health and workforce planning, as well as measurable data to see what actually works in addressing mental health here.


“As a Committee, we have learned that many mental health issues are preventable and that both the financial cost to society and the suffering of many can be reduced. However, there are significant gaps in services, with many of the most vulnerable not getting the care they need.”


The cost of mental ill-health in Northern Ireland is estimated to be around £3.4 billion per year.



The £3.4 billion is associated with four main conditions: anxiety (22%), depression (20%), bipolar disorder (16%) and schizophrenia (8%). Significantly less is spent on mental health here per capita than in the rest of the UK.


Daniel McCrossan, MLA continued:


“When she spoke to the Committee, Mental Health Champion, Professor Siobhan O’Neill said growing the workforce was her number one priority, especially for mental health services supporting children and young people. She also outlined some of the difficulties in implementing the Mental Health Strategy and how that impacts on service development and provision. Figures we have seen show that overall, more than 17,500 people are waiting for a first appointment.”


Among the 16 recommendations made by the Committee are that the Department sets out a target and timeframe over which it will grow mental health funding towards 10-11% of the total health budget.



The Committee has also requested the Department of Health identifies key gaps in mental health services, including regional disparities across Northern Ireland and urgently implements planned regional crisis services.


The Committee is calling for greater partnership working between Health and Education to better address the mental health needs of children. And it has asked the Department to implement services for those with co-occurring mental health and substance use issues as a matter of urgency.



Acknowledging the vital role played by the voluntary and community sectors in providing mental health services, the Committee expressed concern that they often appeared to be the first port of call when funding cuts were required. Its recommendation is that the Department reviews how it can provide funding certainty given its reliance on these sectors.


Daniel McCrossan, MLA concluded:


“We have asked the Department of Health to report back to us over the next 12 months and we are hopeful that significant improvements will be made in key areas in the meantime. Mental health will continue to be an important element of our Committee’s workplan in the months and years ahead.”

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